Holiday theater magic is in the air — literally.
Just take McCarter Theater in Princeton’s annual professional theater presentation of “A Christmas Carol,” reappearing on Friday, December 5, and continuing through Sunday, December 28.
As regional theatergoers know, there is a magic moment in the production when nasty Ebenezer Scrooge, on a journey to redemption, takes a flight over the stage and enchants the audience.
By coincidence a related live television event that is also enchanted by flight takes off on Thursday, December 4: the NBC theatrical production of “Peter Pan.”
The live stage performance will recreate an historical stage and television flight of its own. That was in the early 1950s, when veteran Broadway star Mary Martin, as Peter, made cultural and television history. Peter Pan flew into American living rooms and brought an actual Broadway musical production into homes across the United States.
The production also launched the start of Flying by Foy, an international company whose creator was involved with “Peter Pan” and has since brought flying to professional and amateur theaters from the Big Apple to the boondocks.
It is also the company that enables McCarter’s Scrooge to take flight and launches Peter Pan in the new production.
Although Flying By Foy — like its wires responsible for the illusion of flight — tends to be invisible, it is another show of sorts. One that stars another Peter: Peter Foy.
Like “A Christmas Carol” author Charles Dickens and “Peter Pan’s” James Barrie, Foy was from Great Britain. He was born in 1925 into a London-based theatrical family. In 1940 the young actor began learning the ropes of flying when he took his own first stage flight in the play “Where the Rainbow Ends.” He later substituted and became the flight supervisor for the production.
Foy followed his war years with the Royal Air force by joining Kirby’s Flying Ballets, the company that created the flying effects for the first “Peter Pan” in 1904 and boasted “Peter Pan Flying Effects” that included somersaults and flying through auditoriums.
The flying director came to the United States and Broadway in 1950 when Kirby sent him to oversee the flying in a production of Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” However, the going was heavy, and, as a New York Times article notes, “The flying almost sank the show. Though the tradition of theatrical flying dates back perhaps 2,000 years to the creaky deus ex machina (gods in the machinery) of classical antiquity, it was largely dormant in the United States when Mr. Foy arrived. His art was so unfamiliar that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, worried about the safety of the two young actors playing Wendy’s brothers, threatened to halt the production.”
Four years later Foy returned to Broadway to oversee the landmark musical production of “Peter Pan” with Martin, and his career took off. For that production Foy created a device called the inter-related pendulum — a highly controlled system that passed the performers’ weight through a variety of suspension points to create the semblance of flight.
Over the next several years Foy — through the newly founded Foy Inventerprises and the conscription of his wife, Barbara, as a test pilot — labored to enhance both the performer’s ability to navigate the air and the illusion of flight by concealing as many technical traces as possible. That led to the creation of floating pulley and track-on-track systems. It also led to Flying by Foy — a company that introduced a fully motorized integrated touring truss for the Ice Capades and then a self-contained radio-controlled flying system.
Company materials boast that it also provided “simulation of weightlessness for NASA during the Gemini and Apollo space programs, sent Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci soaring hundreds of feet above New York’s Time Square for the 2004 Olympic Torch Relay, and gracefully glided the Wright Flyer Replica over the heads of dignitaries, aviators, and luminaries at the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum” the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight. The company also was used to fly Sally Fields in the popular 1970s television show “The Flying Nunn.”
Yet for Foy, who died in 2005, it was mainly about theater, and that is where he leaves a legacy. In addition to “Peter Pan,” other Foy productions include “The Lion King,” “Angels in America,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” and McCarter’s “A Christmas Carol.”
While Flying by Foy’s fabrication unit is based in Las Vegas, the company’s East Coast headquarters for flying is a 2,500 square foot dun-colored cinder block complex in Oakford, Pennsylvania, off Route 1 about 25 miles from McCarter Theater.
Here Tim Mackay, managing flying director, oversees a team of six who accommodate hundreds of annual requests for their services, including McCarter Theater and the NBC Peter Pan production.
Moving between a small no-frills office that he shares with his wife, Kate, and a warehouse where walls store harnesses, flying cables, and ropes, as well as a box labeled “Peter Pan Magic Dust,” Mackay says that Foy “has been working with McCarter since I’ve been here. That’s 14 years. The crew there is terrific, and they have similar operators each year. That helps. There’s less of a learning curve.”
That learning involves training and rehearsal protocols that are part of the company’s general offerings. “What we provide is the effect. We don’t just rent the equipment. Someone will call us and have a sort of effect. We’ll listen and then work backwards with the space and consider the budget,” says Mackay.
A current production, the new Chicago play “Amazing Grace,” provides an example. As Mackay tells it: “One of the (production’s) directors came up with a vision. We used that as a template and then worked with individual and shared our experiences and suggested moves: this way to move an arm or the body. It is one of the most beautiful scenes that I have ever been involved with. We have to deal with reality and the biggest vision for the show.”
Mackay says that once he and the crew determine the desired effect, they discuss a variety of systems to best fit the venue. Performers’ safety then becomes the main concern and to look out for the audience and crew. Then they factor in rehearsal time. Some effects can be mastered in an hour or so. Others will take three days or more.
The client then generally has the choice of two basic approaches or packages. One is for Foy to install the structure and train the crew to manage the effect. The other engages Foy staff to be on hand from load in to the strike and to operate the travel lines. “The choices are dependent on comfort level and experience,” says Mackay.
Costs, say Mackay, begin with “a few thousand dollars” and rise from there. “We’re up front with our clients about costs. Everyone knows what they get.” That includes the $5 million liability insurance included at no extra cost.
Regarding safety issues recently brought to the public’s attention after several flying-related accidents in the non-Foy Broadway production of “Spider-Man,” Mackay says, “Our job is to make sure that the performers, crew, and audience are safe at all times. That said, we have humans operate the equipment, even automated equipment, and sometimes minor injuries can occur. Typical minor injuries are the normal bumps and bruises they could get even from just normal choreography in the show. Even these are rare, I would say. Any injury that occurs related to the flying equipment is something that we take very seriously and do everything we can to prevent that in the first place.”
Accordingly, while most flying requests are accepted by Foy, some are denied by logistical considerations. “We have had to say ‘no’ about five times since I’ve been here because the structure wasn’t adequate, and there was no way to change it,” says Mackay.
The establishment of Foy’s East Coast office — one that handles flying from Maine to Florida — and Mackay’s landing at this Old Bristol Pike location happened more by steps than design.
“I grew up in Havertown, west of Philadelphia,” says Mackay. “My dad was a social worker, and my mother was a psychologist. Looking back, they never seemed to discourage me from doing anything. When I was 16 they paid for me to have an apprenticeship at a theater in New Hampshire. When I went to high school, technical theater interested me, and I was involved with the Upper Darby Summer Stage, a training program. I then went to Temple University for theater. That’s where I got involved in Foy. I had a professor, David Hale, a lovely human being, who set up an internship with Foy in London.”
Meanwhile David Hern was a technical director for Temple University and a subcontractor for Foy. As the flying company’s services grew, so did Hern’s involvement, and he eventually accepted and stored equipment at the Oakford warehouse that he used for his own theater production work. As demand grew in the 1980s, Foy expanded and strengthened its East Coast services and bought Hern’s assets.
“When I was finished my internship with Foy, I asked David for a job,” says Mackay. “Four years ago Hern moved to Florida in semi-retirement and asked me to manage this location. It’s a great spot, with the turnpike and New York in a couple hours. And it costs less to have a shop here than in New York and Northern New Jersey.” He adds that most of the high volume of work — in addition to New York City — is in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
With the title of flying director, Mackay has flying on his mind. Current projects include the “Peter Pan” special and the Broadway productions “Cinderella,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and “Cabaret.” Then there’s the upcoming “Honeymoon in Vegas” (for which Mackay also worked on at Paper Mill Playhouse), the Pennsylvania Ballet Company’s “The Nutcracker,” the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, and McCarter Theater’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
There seems a lot of magic flying dust in that box at Foy headquarters . . . and at McCarter Theater in Princeton.
A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 90 University Place, Princeton, through Sunday, December 28, with weekly performances on Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 5:30 p.m. An American Sign Language Interpreted and Audio Described Performance is set for Saturday, December 13, 2 p.m. Additional performances are Wednesday, December 17, at 7:30 p.m., Monday, December, 22, and Tuesday, December 23, at 7:30 p.m., and Wednesday, December 24 at noon and 4 p.m. $25 to $87.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.